Kiana Williams is going home. And she’s taking some hardware.
The senior guard simultaneously clinched a berth to the NCAA Tournament in her hometown of San Antonio and earned 2021 Pac-12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. Over the weekend’s stay in Las Vegas, Williams connected on 12-of-18 3-pointers. In the championship game, she made 6-of-7 and led Stanford with 26 points.
“I think the bigger the game, the better Kiana [Williams] plays,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer.
“March, it’s time for winning. Big players make big plays,” Williams said. “My teammates have confidence in me, my coaches have confidence in me. I have to have confidence in myself. They were finding me in my spots. I was just knocking ’em down. Not just me, but everyone. Everyone has to have confidence. We can’t really rely on one person.”
No. 4 Stanford (25-2, 19-2 Pac-12) was perfectly happy relying on the all-around excellence of Williams to win the Pac-12 Tournament championship 75-55 over No. 9 UCLA (16-5, 12-4 Pac-12).
Over her four years, Williams has dominated the Pac-12 Tournament. In 12 career games, she averaged 3.8 made 3-pointers per game. Her six 3-pointers on Sunday set a championship game record. She is now one 3-pointer away from tying the program record for career makes set by Candice Wiggins ’08.
“I love coming to the Vegas tournament, Pac-12 tournament,” Williams said. “[VanDerveer] reminded me how well I shot my freshman year when it was up in Seattle. She just reminded me of those things. That’s given me confidence.”
The program’s 14th championship was also revenge against one of the two teams to have beaten Stanford this season.
“There’s this saying that [VanDerveer] says we’re ‘nice girls from Stanford,’ but I think we showed we can get down, get dirty, do those little dirty plays, come up with the 50/50 balls, box out,” Williams said. “UCLA is a great offensive rebounding team. We knew if we took care of the rebounds, we’d have a chance.”
VanDerveer watched the game against UCLA five times between the last game and Sunday. In that game, in which UCLA handed Stanford its second straight loss, VanDerveer saw her team shoot 2-for-10 from beyond the arc. Arguably, the biggest problem with that number is that Stanford stopped shooting. More significantly, VanDerveer would have seen her team not give complete effort in that game. UCLA got 12 more second-chance points and 13 more rebounds, including 21 offensive rebounds.
After the semifinal win over Oregon State, “we were watching film, watching plays that — they were just effort plays,” Williams said. “Rebounds, just watching them rebound over us, not boxing them out. For sure it was a revenge game for us. We had to prove to ourselves that we can do the little things, we can box out, rebound, we can execute. I think we took care of business from the tip.”
This time around, Stanford got its rebounds — 38 of them to UCLA’s 27. More often than not, Stanford was the team crashing the boards. If not, VanDerveer would scream a quick “box out Cam.”
“But what a great team effort, turning things around,” VanDerveer said. “Our team listened. They worked really hard.”
Michaela Onyenwere still terrorized Stanford. She scored 30 points on 12-for-26 and shrugged off the defense of freshman forward Cameron Brink, sophomore forward Haley Jones, sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel or anyone else Stanford put on her. But she was just one player. Fifth year guard Anna Wilson held UCLA guard Charisma Osborne off the scoresheet for the first 15 minutes of game time. Osborne eventually reached 11 points as the only Bruin other than Onyenwere to reach double figures, but she needed 24 last time to beat Stanford.
“Onyenwere is fantastic. She played really well,” VanDerveer said. “It started with Anna Wilson defending against Osborne, who is another really outstanding player.”
At different times, Onyenwere, Osborne and forward Lauryn Miller checked out of the game with injuries, further depleting a short UCLA bench. Due to a combination of opt-outs, players unable to make it into the country and decisions from coach Cori Close, just seven Bruins checked into the game.
On the opposite end, VanDerveer called a timeout in the final minute to ensure each of her 12 rostered players would make it into the game. Partially due to game flow, with Williams calling her own number so frequently and with so much success, just seven Stanford players scored.
There was plenty of room for junior guard Lexie Hull. A gifted scorer over her first three seasons, she has seen her offensive load diminished with an abundance of talent around her in the starting lineup. Just in case, she reminded everyone that she can score in bunches with a season-high 24 points. Hull shot 7-of-17 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the foul line.
“We’re probably more of a finesse team. We like to move the ball, free motion. But sometimes you’ve got to really get in a grind game. We just wanted to be ready for that. I think we have shown toughness, but we can show more. This game demanded it. It demanded that we rebound. It demanded that we play defense. Our team stepped up,” VanDerveer said. “Again, people were extremely competitive. I think throughout the season Lexie, she’s been steady. She hasn’t shot maybe as well as sometimes we want her to, or she’s capable of. But I love her competitiveness. I really thought she was someone that was a big difference maker for us today. But she brings toughness every day.”
Hull’s toughness translated to the boards, where she grabbed six. Jones led everyone with 13. Before fouling out with a little under six minutes to play, Brink had five. Wilson snagged four. Sophomore forward Fran Belibi snagged three.
“Teams can’t just scout me or just scout one person on our team because we’re a threat from all five positions,” Williams said. “That’s really important for a national championship-caliber team.”
Williams believes that Brink will be an X-factor during the NCAA tournament and an All-American during her time at Stanford. The Hall of Fame coach agreed.
“I think she had a very good tournament,” VanDerveer said. “She had a great game against Oregon State; she was fabulous. As a young player, I think she’s doing extremely well. Just adjusting to a more physical play, a bigger court, coach yelling at her a lot. She does some great things for us.”
Brink and the other freshmen are playing fantastic basketball without ever taking a class at Stanford. The whole team adjusted to living on the road and taking homework to the beach in Santa Cruz. Stanford played a total of six games in Maples Pavilion.
“It’s been one heck of a year, to say the least,” Williams said. “Just super proud of my teammates. Felt like we were on a roll over those nine, 10 weeks. But we stuck together and we really leaned on each other. It was hard at times living out of a suitcase, living out of the hotel rooms. But we wanted to play so bad, we just had to make certain sacrifices.”
“To win the regular season, to come here and back it up with the tournament championship, just says a lot about how tough we are,” she added. “I’m super excited about how we bounced back from that UCLA loss.”
Williams showed off her near-unlimited range and at times could have been shooting from the campus of UNLV, where former Stanford player and assistant and current MAC Coach of the Year Lindy La Rocque ’12 hosted VanDerveer’s vagabonds when they were first kicked out of Santa Clara County in December.
Being the go-to player is not new for Williams. During her sophomore season, she was in a Big Three with Alanna Smith ’19, the last Stanford player to win Most Outstanding Player at the tournament and DiJonai Carrington ’20. When Carrington missed all but five games last season, Williams ascended to the primary role flawlessly. All year long, VanDerveer has said Williams is the key. And she was.
Still, it was more than one player. It was a group that stuck together and celebrated together. A group that celebrated VanDerveer’s record-breaking 1,099th win and put “T-Dawg” on the back of a sweatshirt.
“I’m so proud of our team, not just for winning but winning because they were so together as a team, they wanted it so much for each other,” VanDerveer said. “That’s not always the case… I wanted it for them. I kind of said, ‘Look, I already got 13 nets. I want it for you guys.’”
At halftime, VanDerveer’s team executed to near-perfection. Stanford held UCLA to 20, its fewest points in a half this season, and led by 23. Stanford’s first four made field goals came from behind the arc and UCLA’s defense was wide open for the rest of the game. Stanford controlled the paint and the boards. The most momentum UCLA ever had followed an intentional foul call on Brink that resulted in a pair of free throws that cut the deficit to 15 points. Then Stanford went on an 8-0 run to close the half.
In the third quarter, however, Stanford struggled to the tune of seven turnovers. UCLA outscored Stanford by nine. Stanford shot just 3-for-12 in the period and looked frustrated. Brink played just three minutes, during which she picked up two fouls. Jones played two minutes.
“We did have spurts of just great basketball, but then we kind of fell off the wagon a little bit,” VanDerveer said. “We need to be more consistent as a team. We need people to adjust to officiating better. We can’t be in foul trouble, foul trouble, foul trouble. I’m not trying to nitpick, but you win a championship game and you’re looking forward to the NCAA. I think that we have to look at things that we can do better so we can be cutting down more nets.”
“We played really well in the first half,” Williams said. “[VanDerveer] challenged us to play even better in the second half. So there’s always room for improvement. We’re going to watch tape and watch some teaching clips to just get ready for the NCAA Tournament.”
By the final buzzer, Stanford had 17 turnovers. In the tournament, that is a sign of an early flight home. You have to trust VanDerveer when she says it is not a concern for tonight.
“Well, one of the turnovers was a shot-clock violation at the end,” VanDerveer said. “But 16 is not good either. We have things we can do better. Sometimes whether you’re a coach or a player, you kind of have to enjoy the moment. Our team is very excited. I’m going to look at the good things. We’re going to talk about the goals that we accomplished. Turning around probably about Wednesday or Thursday we’ll say, ‘Hey, we can take care of the ball better.’”
“If we continue to stay healthy and our team keeps improving, we’re capable of beating anyone and we’re capable of losing to anyone,” VanDerveer said. “We just have to continue to improve. We have a young group, but I know we can get a lot better in the next month.”
The NCAA Tournament bracket will be released on March 15 at 4 p.m. PT. In the first two releases of the Top 16 seeds, the committee put Stanford on the No. 1 line. Winning out since then and claiming the conference regular and postseason championship did not hurt Stanford’s resume. The only suspense for Stanford will be the name of its region — the Alamo, the Hemisfair, the Mercado or the River Walk — after four famous sites in San Antonio.
“We’ll see everyone down in Texas,” VanDerveer said, “with our masks.”
“It’s my hometown, too,” Williams said. “I guess we’re going to be the home team.”